March 14, 2013 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Transitioning from a club to high school coach

Coaches must understand the group dynamic within scholastic teams

Imagine an individual with more than 20 years of club coaching experience wanting to take over a high school program. It seems like a perfect fit, which is what I thought. But after spending more than two decades on the club-sport side of soccer, I found the transition to coaching a high school team much more challenging than expected. There are lessons I learned, which apply to club coaches of all sports.

While skills, player vision and general decision-making can be different between a club and high school athlete, it’s the team culture, spirit, personality and program reputation that come into play in the scholastic setting. A high school team functions differently from a group sociological perspective, which means if you consider hiring a club coach for your program or if you are a coach making the transition, there are key differences to take into account.

Determining sociological differences

The phrase “group sociological perspective” is used to describe a viewpoint developed by analyzing a high school team through observation of conduct and interaction as a group, disregarding individual analysis of each player. This requires a coach to view the interaction of players on the team, as opposed to analyzing team performance based on the performance of its individual players. The purpose of this analysis is to allow a coach to influence individual player performance and attitude by using the group as a tool. The group is influenced by the team culture. The team culture is created by the coach. When you are hiring a club coach to take over a team, be sure this person has a clear philosophy for the type of team culture (high pressure or laid back, for example) he or she aims to establish.

Due to the high level of peer-group pressure among the players on a team in a high school setting, the effect of a group mentality has a much greater impact on team performance than at the club level. The group affects performance of the team and of each individual player with direct, indirect and subliminal pressure. The high school player sits in the classroom all day alongside his or her teammates, which provides the opportunity for constant interaction about the team. This interaction creates a deep and lasting group mentality, team culture and spirit. Consequently, team performance on the field is affected. The group takes on its own personality (group mindset) with flaws, inconsistencies, goals, desires, periods of excellence and of failure, just like an individual player does.

The key for a coach to influence the group in a positive way is with consistency, repetition and patience when imprinting the culture on each member of the group. Determine the culture for the team, refine it with ideas from the school administration, put pen to paper and then sell it to the team at every training session, game and team event. Be consistent with player and team discipline for violating this culture, and consistent with praise for adhering to it.

Developing the group mindset

A group mindset means team culture, personality and most importantly, a positive or negative view of the group as a whole. The mindset does not refer to any individual. After understanding the group differences, the coach must strive to create a positive group mindset within the team.

Having been on both sides, it is clear that the high school experience is more important from a social viewpoint than the club experience despite players participating on the club team for more months of the year. Players recognize the importance of having a high school experience, their status within the high school team, their status as part of a successful or failing high school team and representing their high school during these formative years. This allows coaches to more easily influence high school players due to a higher level of perceived importance. High school players have more drive to see the group succeed.

Once the high school team’s mindset is created, it is harder to change because the players don’t switch teams nearly as often as in club sports. This acts as a positive or a negative depending on the players’ impressions of the coach. A talented freshman may be part of a high school team for four years–this is a long time to have a solid impression of a coach. If the impression is positive, you are in great shape. If it’s negative, then winning back that player becomes a challenge. At the club level, because of age restrictions and ease of movement from team to team, the team mindset is more fluid.

With the mindset more static at the high school level, it’s critical coaches use all information available to shape the initial culture. There is a high level of discussion (gossip) outside of practice and games among high school players about the program, the coach, the school administration and the success or failure of the season. Player camaraderie outside of the program is important at the high school level, much more so than at the club level. This extends to the players’ opinions about each other regarding perceived popularity and scholastic achievement. Gather this information from your players before shaping the team culture.

High school players also are more prone to share ideas, comments, praise and criticism about the high school program than at the club level. This produces a major group sociological mindset that a coach must recognize, observe, understand and manipulate to the team’s advantage.

Understanding the group

At the high school level, from an administration viewpoint, coaches are expected to create a program that has a distinct and positive team culture, spirit, reputation and code of conduct. The high school coach is the prime mover to create each of these parts of the program. Coaches are closer to the players and to the overall program and sometimes have a greater influence on players than teachers or administrators. Because of that influence, coaches can create or destroy a culture with a long-lasting effect on the school and program based on an understanding of the group dynamic and conduct with a team. Coaches’ conduct when interacting with a team creates the team culture, which in turn creates the team spirit and the reputation of a program.

Team culture establishes the teamwork rate during training sessions and during games. Team spirit either enhances or degrades player happiness, which relates to player performance during training and games. Team and program reputation is created as coaches enforce a chosen code of team conduct. Team reputation also is influenced by school administrators, who are not so much focused on developing a winning team as on sportsmanship or adhering to school or district rules. School priorities, for better or worse, may be different than usual club team priorities. To complicate matters further, in addition to winning a few games along the way, coaches are pressured to ensure players conclude their high school season with fond memories of the program their coach while increasing their chances to play college athletics.

Creating the team culture

The most important element is the creation of the team culture before the first meeting with your players. Some coaches require a high work rate at training and during games, never giving up, punctuality, unselfish play and respect for the opponent. Others may establish team culture based on fun during training sessions and individual player enjoyment, a high academic standard and individual player improvement.

The components of the team culture are only limited by the imagination of the coach but each component must be an element the coach controls. For example, an element of the team culture should not be “winning” or “no goals allowed for a season.” The team culture is more like a concept than a goal. Remember, once the team culture is created, all the other elements fall in line like standing dominos to influence team performance. The coach pushes the first domino by creating the team culture.

Here are five controllable elements used to influence the group dynamic when creating a team culture:

1. Repetitive reminders to the team and to individual players by the coach and the team captains reinforcing the culture.

2. Continual and consistent player or team discipline by the coach when the team culture is violated; and praise when the team culture is followed.

3. Relentlessly explaining the purpose of each element of the team culture and explaining to players how reinforcing it with discipline or praise relates to team performance.

4. Sticking with the team culture for the entire season whether or not the team is winning games.

5. Defining and explaining the team culture to the athletic director and any other administrator who has contact with players before the start of the season. Asking that person to reinforce certain elements of the team culture to the players when appropriate.

Understand the differences between the club and high school team dynamic and know you control this by creating a team culture. It does not guarantee a winning season but it starts the team off on the right foot toward success.

About the Author: Dan Minutillo has coached soccer for more than 20 consecutive years, including club academy and varsity high school soccer teams. He holds an NSCAA National Diploma, has been published several times in various nationally distributed periodicals including articles about soccer speed of play, player motivation, plyometrics, and the use of time, space and third man runs. Minutillo is the author of the bestselling book, “Formation Based Soccer Training.” Reach him at [email protected].

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